Monday, February 28, 2011

Celebrating the generations

Lily (now 2) holds her new cousin, Sophia (now 2 weeks), with a little help from grandma. It's been a lovely weekend.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Comforting one another

We've been doing a series at our evening services on the 'one another' sayings in the New Testament, those places where God's people are urged to do something for one another in order to build their communal life. It's helping us to explore what shape Christian community might have.

Last Sunday we were thinking about comforting one another, reflecting on Paul's great statement in 2 Corinthians 1:3-5. One of the issues that particularly resonated with people was the need to help one another cope with the times of rapid social change through which we are living.

Some people find the dizzying pace of change profoundly unsettling. Those of us who are gleefully adopting new technology, facebooking and tweeting at every opportunity, are in danger of leaving behind those who struggle to make sense of what's going on. They feel it as a profound loss of a way of being and doing things that was familiar to them, that they felt in control of. In many ways they are grieving a lost way of life with the same intense emotions with which people grieve the loss of a loved one.

Generally when people are bereaved we know what to do. We rally round, bring a comforting presence that is accompanied by few words, we cook meals, do a bit of shopping, create the space people need to work through their grief. Why can't we do the same with people who are struggling to come to terms with the loss of old familiar ways of doing things. We know that the 1950s are not returning; rapid social change, increasingly driven by the revolution in communications technology, is here to stay.

The question for us is how will we comfort one another through these changes. Comfort is about bringing strength, the strength to face changes that unsettle and upset us, to see them accurately and speak about them honestly. Without such seeing and speaking, all we do is live in denial of the effect of change on our lives and the pain continues. Comfort is about facing the things that cause us pain and bringing the strength that comes through knowing the support of a loving community.

And behind all this is God, the one who comforts us through his grace and strengthens us to face events that unsettle us, so that we in turn can be the means of bringing comfort to those around us.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Album of the year - yes, already!

I've been listening to what will undoubtedly be the album of the year; undoubtedly because I cannot imagine it being bettered. It is Let England Shake by PJ Harvey.

I came late to Polly Jean's oeuvre but have loved Stories from the city, Stories from the Sea and the more recent White Chalk. She writes beautiful, intelligent, edgy songs. But nothing prepared us for Let England Shake.

The album is full of fabulous tunes. Some of them arrive on the gossamer wings of a mayfly, things of fragile beauty; others come with an almost industrial groove, played with a wonderfully light touch. And all of them are made more enticing, ethereal, stranger by the instrumentation and use of samples - bugles, reggae hits, etc. Polly Jean has even triumphantly made the autoharp a rock n' roll instrument.

Then there's her voice. She's noted for being a bit strident, though I've always loved its slightly west country timbre. But here, her voice seems to come from a different dimension altogether, strong and yet delicate, angelic and earthy.

The music and the voice on their own would make this my album of the year. But the songs are amazing. This is record about something that matters - and how often can you say that these days? Gone are the introspective songs about love and relationships. Instead Polly Jean tackles war - what bigger subject is there? - but even more importantly, why England, the land she adores with a passion, has been shaped and is still being shaped by war.

The album is a meditation on what has made England the country it is, what has shaped our psyche, our national character. She achieves it by musing on the first world war, especially the Gallipoli fiasco, using first hand accounts filtered through her subtle and fertile imagination.

The result is an unsettling spiritual masterpiece, an album that makes you think and feel; a suite of songs that forces the listener to ask why things are this way and what have I contributed? For instance, In the Dark Places suggests a link between our war record and young men who use guns to settle their differences on our streets. On England, she describes the land as 'a withered vine' - a potent and powerful biblical image of a land and its people - and speaks of her longing to find the springs that might renew it; and yet she sings 'undaunted, never failing love for you, England, is all, to which I cling.'

When she sings 'cruel nature has won again' on On Battleship Hill, which begins with an almost disembodied vocal singing that the scent of thyme stings you into remembering that nature has won again (a hopeful, even beautiful image - especially so due to to her voice), as the song's final line, you realise that she is talking about our nature, human nature. Even after all this time, the innocent scent of thyme brings back the horror and futility of a battle that cost so many lives.

It sounds like a heavy brew, yet it is also awash with wonderful light, even humorous moments, like the sampling of the line from Eddie Cochran's song Summertime Blues at the end of The Words that Maketh Murder: Polly and her band sing 'what if I take my problems to the united nations..?' It makes you laugh and weep in equal measure.

In short, buy it, listen to it, talk about it, reflect on it: this is what rock n' roll was always meant to be - music that might just change the world.

Friday, February 11, 2011

The light dawns over the Nile

Great news from Egypt this evening. As one of the demonstrators in Tahrir Square said 'Pharoah has let his people go'. Let's pray that in the wake of Mubarak's departure, the forces of democracy, justice and freedom are stronger than the forces of chaos and authoritarianism.

One of the things that has been striking over recent days is how president Mubarak has gone from being a key western ally in the search for middle eastern peace to being an obstacle to modernisation and the transition to democracy. I should applaud conversions, however late, but it is a bit rich for those who have kept Mubarak in power to side with his people only when those people seemed likely to get rid of him.

We bang on a lot about democracy but we really do have to be more consistent in our determination to see democracy flourish everywhere. Our selective support for unpleasant regimes does our interests in the world no good in the long term.

But maybe our relationships with the world should always be founded on something more noble than what is in our interest. I know Robin Cook's notion of an ethical foreign policy was somewhat tarnished by the government within which he served, but it seems to me that at the very least we should not expect the people of another nation to put up with a regime that we would not live under just because it's in our 'national interest' defined as militarily expedient or necessary for our economic well-being.

And the Middle East peace process ought to be aided by Arab democracy rather than hindered by it. Israel is always trumpeting its democratic credentials in a region of authoritarian governments. It should rejoice that Egyptians could soon share the same rights. 80 millions Egyptians could be voting alongside 7.5 million Israelis and 10.5 million Tunisians. Who knows, that common experience might help them to listen to and live at peace with one another in the coming years.
And this is one of the great pictures of hope to have come out of the Egyptian uprising. Last thursday as demonstrators were being attacked by pro-Mubarak factions, Christian Egyptians linked arms and protected Muslim Egyptians as they prayed.

It's pictures like this that give me hope that young Egyptians - the overwhelming majority of the population - will be able to live together in peace and harmony despite their religious and cultural differences.

It's a picture that inspires prayer - and joy.

Monday, February 07, 2011

The shrinking big society

More big society waffle this morning - especially from the minister for civil society (what kind of job is that? If ever there was a quangocrat who needs to be culled he was it!) - nailed by Dame Elisabeth Hoodless. She makes the simple link between the voluntary sector and money that few have been willing to make.

The simple fact is that as statutory funds available for the voluntary sector reduce, voluntary sector organisations will go to the wall. It's not enough for there to be good will about volunteering or for there to be a review of the red tape affecting charities (very welcome) or even that there be a campaign to recruit more volunteers (excellent).

What the big society waffle fails to comprehend is that voluntary organisations need money to function. I am chair of a relatively small youth charity that works with more than 500 young people in various settings over the course of a year, operated by 8 staff and 50+ volunteers. We need £150,000 a year to run - a big sum until you compare it with the cost of keeping a single young offender at Feltham (and many of the young people we work with are at risk of ending up there or somewhere similar).

Our funding hangs on a delicate web of cash that relies on the statutory sector being a player. It works like this. Grant making trusts will often make grants only to organisations who are endorsed by their locality through attracting local authority funding. Remove the latter and the former is often less forthcoming. At the same time, the economic circumstances - especially the collapse of investment returns over the past couple of years - means that those grant making trusts have less money. It also means that there are fewer individuals prepared to make significant donations to charities - especially those working in difficult areas (animals attract cash but young people don't).

So Dame Elisabeth is quite right when she warns "there are a lot of very worthwhile programmes - for example volunteers working in child protection as promoted by the minister for children - which are now under threat of closure."

Friday, February 04, 2011

The World of the Early Church

Well, I am holding and leafing through the first advance copy of The World of the Early Church and it looks and feels really good. It's hard to believe that all that typing a year or so ago has become this lovely artifact. That's credit to the team at Lion who've done a fabulous job putting it together. It'll be in the shops in March, so feel free to buy a copy for yourself and at least one for a friend!

It's up on the Amazon website (who have, at last, given me the correct middle initial!) to pre-order. But you really ought to support your local book shop, especially your local Christian retailer. It will be cheaper from Wesley Owen if you are a member of their scheme than it is from Amazon.

The book offers a social history of the world in which the church was born, looking at city life, where people lived, what they did for work, what they ate and how and where they found entertainment; and it looks at the social pecking order, family life, the economy and religion.

And it's got lots of lovely pictures in it so it won't look out of place on your coffee table!

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Praying for Egypt

I've been watching the events in Egypt with a mixture of hope and fear. I have been praying that freedom and justice will come to this great country as a result of this uprising of ordinary people crying 'enough is enough'.

I have been struck by how the media here keeps playing up the fear of chaos and uncertainty, as if the options are dictatorship or anarchy. But surely democracy is messy; surely it's about the interplay of ideas and debates about what kind of country people want to live in.

Of course there is not a single leader who could replace Mubarak because that's not how democracy works; that's how autocratic regimes carry on. Democracy is about people deciding what ideas and policies they want enacted and then looking for people who'll best represent them. That's what we enjoy in the UK, why shouldn't the Egyptians enjoy the same?

It's also noticeable that much of the coverage is about what's in our interest, as though our interests are best served by dictators abroad, even though we enjoy democracy at home. It's the old argument, of course; but isn't time it was replaced? If we genuinely believe that democracy is good for people, then let's support democracy for all people and stop shoring up unpleasant regimes because they buy our goods or serve our interests.

It's possible that we won't be able to sell democrats as many guns as dictators buy but that's no bad thing. Likewise, our banks might not benefit from the strong men salting away billions in their retirement funds in tax havens, but that's no bad things either since it might mean that the cash would be used for the benefit of their people.

So, I'm praying that Egypt makes a peaceful transition to a genuine democracy and maybe serves as a model for Yemen and Jordan, Algeria and Libya...